Browsing around some language-learning blogs last night, I noticed people throwing around “conversational fluency” and saying it’s pretty easy to achieve. I find this a little amusing, given even though I certainly can hold a conversation, so long as the topic matter stays on what I’m familiar with, I still wouldn’t consider myself “conversationally fluent.” Which makes me wonder what other people mean by that compared to what I do. I think I can’t really consider myself even conversationally fluent until I reach a point where it’s at least as easy to express myself in an understandable manner in my non-native language(s) as my native language. Perhaps not correctly by native standards, but at least not having to pause to think about what I want to say because I’m already thinking in the L2 (or L3), and at least getting simple grammar correct enough that it’s not a hindrance to comprehension as it sometimes is now. I need to be able to understand native speakers at least 80% of the time, slang and all. Then I’ll consider myself conversationally fluent.
Relatedly, I’ve been pondering what my goals in Japanese really are. I think my emphasis has pretty much always been more on reading/listening comprehension first, with writing being desirable and conversation being the least necessary in my mind. I’m not really going to become a translator, and while Japanese is a useful language in my life and a significant part of my family speaks it, it’s not actually the main language. I’m glad I’ve at least gotten to a point where I can kind of tell my grandmother what I’ve been doing and read her responses and have simple conversations with her, because it was something I missed out on doing with my grandfather. But she is getting on in years and I’m unlikely to rocket to conversational fluency or mastery in the next six months, and even if I did, I’m not going to spend significant amounts of time in Japan to be with her in the near future because I have my actual career to think of as well. And outside of her, everyone else in my family I’ve more regular contact with that speaks Japanese also speaks Mandarin, and many don’t speak Japanese at all, but only speak Mandarin. Including my mom, really, who’s also having more trouble expressing herself the older she gets, and while she’s still having problems in Mandarin, it’s really her most comfortable language still.
I’m not giving up on Japanese– I won’t be happy until I’m able to read the sorts of things I want to be able to read, and I have at least one Japanese friend I’d like to keep in touch with anyway. (Though ironically, she actually also knows Mandarin, too.) And in general I do want to pass at least the N2 eventually, and maybe even the N1, just so I can say I did. But I’m thinking at least by 2014, I’d like to switch gears to seriously focus on Mandarin instead. By the end of this year, I’d like to be able to just kind of keep up on Japanese maintenance through reading and chatting with the friends I have that speak Japanese and writing posts (either here or maybe lang-8 by that time) rather than seriously studying. At least I’d like to be finished with up through the Core 3000 set on iKnow, or close to, and then I’m not sure if I’ll continue. I mean it would probably be good, but I might kind of drop off to finish off the Chinese sets first, at least.
All of this is a little hard, since I really don’t like learning Mandarin the same way I enjoy learning Japanese. Even though there’s a lot about Japanese that’s difficult, I find it enjoyable to speak (insofar as I can) and study, whereas Mandarin kind of makes me want to throw things at walls. I have a lot of weird, painful things tied up with Mandarin that I never had with Japanese, and I also just get especially frustrated that somehow my speaking isn’t magically on par with my listening. Plus, I’m still kind of in that phase of learning a tonal language (coming from a native language that isn’t tonal and learning one that is, but only mildly) of not being able to consistently remember the tones along with pronunciation. But putting it off doesn’t mean it’s going to get any easier. And it’s really Mandarin that’s the language I want to be conversational in, because that’s the people who I’m surrounded by and the culture I really want to connect with as part of my personal identity.
Mostly my updates will still be about Japanese for now, but I’m going to try to spend this year working on my Mandarin pronunciation, so hopefully by next year when I get more serious about it, I can spend less time on trying to say things correctly.